Art Spiegelman: The Sky Is Falling
When Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize winning creator of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, left his Soho home early on the morning of Sept 11, 2001, he witnessed the unforgettable sight of an airplane plowing into the World Trade Towers.
Instinctively, he ran to his daughter’s high school just blocks away from what would soon be called “ground zero” where, amidst the pandemonium, he found her shaken but safe. It was then that the towers collapsed. As the billious cloud of smoke and debris shrouded West Side Drive, for Spiegelman, time seemed to stand still. A few days later, still caught in a mental state of suspended animation, he started writing and drawing In the Shadow of No Towers, a comic strip journal of observations. Designed as a ten-part broadsheet comic, it was published in monthly installments in a few newspapers in Europe and the Jewish Forward in New York. As the strip evolved, Spiegelman invested references to pioneer comic strip characters and artists from the turn-of-the-century, some whom worked only blocks from the site of the towers on legendary newspaper row. It was his way of coming to grips with the enormity of the event through a comic language that had long provided solace during other critical times in his life. In September 2004, the ten original strips and ten vintage strips about New York by such masters as Windsor McKay, Fred Opper, and Lionel Feininger, were made into a unique board book wherein the roots of Spiegelman’s life’s work intersects with the here and how. In this interview, the artist talks about In the Shadow of No Towers and the controversy surrounding it.
Heller: Given all the public attention In the Shadow of No Towers is receiving, despite some negative and even snarky reviews, it has become an amazing platform for you, has it not?
Spiegelman: Instead of yelling at a TV set, I get to talk. Although it wasn’t my intention all along, once I put out a book I figured I’d go on a book tour between now and election day—so it is more like running for office than being on a book tour.
Heller: You say that the soapbox was not your initial intention, but, at least in the back of your mind, was there a political motivation when you started doing the comic strip?
Spiegelman: Absolutely not, and it’s one of the ways that the book gets misunderstood and gets the kind of reviews it gets in some of the venues. It is now seen as polemical, political cartooning in the midst of other people who are writing essays and making images that are called, rather laughably to me, “Bushbashing.” Which is as if he is a victim, rather than a victimizer. But the original imagery was there as part of a different intention, which was to report on my subjective state on Sept 11, 2001 and its aftermath—and that aftermath yanked me into a political arena larger than my home and neighborhood. These [strips] were reports of what seemed real to me—and, as the hijacking got hijacked, it meant dealing with that second event that was supplanting, replacing, and deforming the disaster of Sept 11.
Heller: Okay, maybe it didn’t start as a polemic, but it did become polemical.
Spiegelman: Well, I am not 100 percent sure of the definition of polemic, but it wasn’t meant to convince anybody of anything...
Heller: Yet it was certainly critical of the government.
Spiegelman: But it was like being critical of the debris that is falling around you. It is a different thing. It wasn’t designed to have an effect other than trying to make sense of the dislocations to me and to the world around me. As the attack itself was subsumed into having “political” import, in the provincial sense, I was dragged into that arena as part of what it meant for me to understand what I had been living through. That’s not the same as political cartooning.
Heller: The work clearly has topical urgency. So, how did you balance the personal with the news?
Spiegelman: Each of the strips was a condensed journal entry of my month in the shadow of no towers, and I allowed the shape to be whatever it was going to take. But, I did acknowledge that the work had urgency without thinking of the work as making any bid for posterity. The strips really were made in the spirit of the work that takes place in the second part of the book [the early comics]. They weren’t made for some ostensible future, they were made for a specific moment.
Heller: But didn’t you have a sense that they would become documents? I’m sure that the comics artists of the past didn’t look into their future because they were working for newspaper deadlines, and the future-gazing obsession was not part of their consciousness.
Spiegelman: Well, it was for poets, authors, and painters—they did think of living inside a history—but the working stiffs at newspapers didn’t. When I was making these strips, I was sure that the sky was literally falling and we would be dead soon.
Heller: Hence, you allowed yourself a chance to make a couple of strips, but by the time you reached ten, it sounds like you were surprised that you were still around.
Spiegelman: Yeah. And I quieted down as it was moving forward and maybe the strips became more shaped in that sense as commentaries, but the original impulse and what carried me through the beginning of the project really had to do with ‘okay, you’re not leaving New York, you’re gonna be there when that next shoe drops, what are you going to do till then?’ I’m supposed to be making comics, so I had to do it the best way I knew how, which is what those guys at the beginning of the Twentieth Century were doing.
Heller: Was there a time after the third or fourth installment, when you realized that the shoe was not about to drop, that you became comfortable with the conceit you were following?
Spiegelman: Well, I became comfortable with what I knew would be the process of trying to pick up the pieces of brain that were in the rubble and tried to make some mosaic out of the pieces and that that would be the trajectory. It wasn’t so much a conceit as trying to figure out what it means to have time stand still (which is what that moment of the burning towers that keep repeating on each page are) and time to begin moving in fits and starts again, which are the little sequences in various styles representing facets and fragments that are kind of narrative in time again.
Heller: At the time we were all dealing with fear, anger, and sadness. But there was also impressed on the whole tragedy a sense of sanctity and solemnity; did you feel the need to be solemn?
Spiegelman: I think the word “awesome” covers that, by using the word not in its valley girl sense but in its implications and real meaning. If anything, I always try in my work to avoid maudlin sentimentality, and sometimes I may err on the side of brash cynicism, but I don’t want to be a tear-jerker, so the work veered away from the emotional horror in some ways. I let it be expressed without stopping it but I didn’t want to milk it, which is what I see as the American response to this.
Heller: Is this the reason for introducing the comic characters you use in the strip?
Spiegelman: There’s a brashness to comics, sure. And certainly at the beginning of the last century they didn’t worry about that political correctness thang or propriety. If anything that’s why comics were looked at as thoroughly pernicious sub-literature when they were born. Those Katzenjammer kids were perceived as terrorists.
Heller: Did this come pretty quickly for you? Did you open up the faucet and it just came out?
Spiegelman: It didn’t happen on the first page, it happened as I was working. My conceit [at the outset] is that ground zero and newspaper row were right next to each other. But more accurately, I was taking my cultural sustenance from the old Sunday comics, because I couldn’t stand listening to music—it was too beautiful, I couldn’t follow poetry—I couldn’t keep the concentration level high enough to follow it, and, if I turned on a TV, it would immediately go to a news report.
Heller: Were the old comics an escape then?
Spiegelman: They were cultural nourishment. The reason that other people turned to poetry was to make sure that this civilization was worth saving, and even to get the comfort that other people went through rough times. I found all that and more in a culture that wasn’t really meant to last. That really wasn’t something I could have articulated the moment I was doing it, but now it is clear to me that when I was beginning to shape this as a book, the “happy ending” (in BIG quotation marks) was that when time starts moving, it moves back towards another time and we realize that people lived and breathed through their disasters the same way we are doing it through ours.
Heller: Isn’t that what we call nostalgia?
Spiegelman: No, I think it’s a kind of epiphany—it’s the opposite. Making the past present has more to do with the title page of the book, which has a burning image of the towers that’s in my head superimposed on a Sept 11, 1901 newspaper about presidential assassination and Emma Goldman being arrested. They had their own crises. The Yellow Kid was appearing as we were running up to our first colonialist adventure in the Spanish American War in Cuba and the Philippines and later revving up for World War I. While the world was ending, these working stiffs were going on expressing as much of their personality as could be funneled into those pages.
Heller: Obviously, everyone who reads it makes the connection between No Towers and Maus, though not necessarily accurately.
Spiegelman: Yeah, it’s driving me nuts.
Heller: But they have rightly been using it as a touchstone for critiquing No Towers. What are the differences?
Spiegelman: This thing expresses my diasporist, secular Jewish nature, but this isn’t about the Holocaust. My father was a victim of a drastic historical event. Thus far, I am just a bystander. I’m like one of those Poles in Maus. I was not caught in an upper tower window—I didn’t even lose a friend in the disaster. But, nevertheless, I thought I was going to die that day, although I was obviously outside the perimeter of the grim reaper. Nevertheless, this wasn’t a work that had the Olympian privilege of looking down on a closed book of some kind and seeing how it might have implications for the present, it was a report from the epicenter. These strips were never trying to be a full-blown narrative that even offers the pleasures of narrative in that sense. This book denies the expectations of people who have finally learned to accept Maus, which denies the expectations of what a book should be prior to that and the way it does so it exists in its implications, its fragments and its connections. It is never intended as the smooth narrative ride that makes people come to me and say, very guiltily, “I loved your book.” Narrative brings its pleasures. This book serves a purpose for me; it returns me to gestalting towards the work I did before Maus.
Heller: You mean like the autobiographical work about your mother’s suicide in your book Breakdowns, or the more formal comics exercises therein?
Spiegelman: The autobiographical work found expression in Maus, but what I had to sublimate and keep from being so visible as to disrupt the narrative flow in Maus were the formal interests I had in the work that appears in Breakdowns that has to do with structure. And when I was dealing with large structures falling, and had access to this large vista of paper, those things determined the way I thought through and worked.
Heller: So you found solace in playing with comic strip form and architecture, and by returning to vintage comic characters that gave you pleasure in earlier times?
Spiegelman: I did find myself rereading whatever Krazy Kat stuff I had around and looking at my McKay pages and things like that. And working on this large scale invited me to return to people who [back in the early days of comics] were allowed to work in that scale. In terms of form, the reason this book couldn’t be printed small and that the format became so weird is that I needed to present the pages as I thought them, which was large panels collaged together.
Heller: Like artists that need to work in mural space.
Spiegelman: It needed to be that. It didn’t work when I reduced them down. The meaning was clear but the visual connectedness doesn’t happen. Ultimately, the reason it became a board book was it was the only way to get a size big enough smuggled into a bookstore where I didn’t have to worry about jumping gutters.
Heller: There is a certain tactile and visual pleasure in the way these strips are constructed, so that by the time you come to the end of the ten strips one wants more.
Spiegelman: I’m glad. Some of the reviewers wanted less. Some wanted lots more. Some wanted lots more of something else. But these strips are exactly what they are—they are reporting on one year. And once I’ve introduced, very overtly, the concept of ephemera, and what meaning ephemera might have in its afterlife—which brings up in the theme of these of these monumental buildings that become ephemeral, and this ephemera that became monumental—it’s not about an Olympian overview that tries to take the measure of an event that is still unfolding.
Heller: But the reviewers are anticipating something from you. Although you’ve not been a slacker since Maus, you had not done a major comic since it was published. So here is your next opus.
Spiegelman: I have done other work, but I haven’t done quite literally a book of my comics. As a book, this is a very specific new thing, and as a result the new thing this book is doesn’t even fit well into that newly formed graphic novel section. If anything, it fits into a novel graphics section.
Heller: Do you think, just maybe, there are too many layers of complexity?
Spiegelman: I think there’s a lot that is understandable in it. The complexity is what makes it rich.
Heller: But when you discuss the concept of ephemerality, it is not really overt, it is a subtext of sorts that comes out through a very close reading of the work.
Spiegelman: With any work worth its salt, you have to trust the author enough to take its measure. And if you apply too many preconceptions, you are not taking its measure. When you do enter into the book, the theme of What will last? What is ephemeral? What is timeless? What is passing? What scale does this event really have? all questions raised within the work, is clear. I think its complexity is a gift. It’s not an event that should be simplified and brought down to being a war poster. The other implications of the event are still unfolding, and this offers a way to approach them because of its raw-ness. It is not being turned into an emotionally groomed and well-packaged event. Although, as a book it is well-packaged, it is meant to give pleasure in the midst of talking seriously.
Heller: Because it is a new form for you, how difficult was it for you to work within that large broadsheet page size? I’ve seen your sketches for smaller pages, and the kind of intricacies you delve into. Did it come easily, naturally, or was it a struggle?
Spiegelman: It was a great pleasure because it allowed for the kind of juxtapositions that were at the heart of the way I wanted to work. I definitely did do a lot of preliminary work but it didn’t either come easily or hard. It was simply what I was doing while waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it was just making good use of my time trying to build something. The time pressure was there but I couldn’t accede to it entirely, which makes me a poor candidate to do a daily strip. Some pages flowed out, much to my surprise, while others had to be reworked. I found that the process of doing that was the process of getting my thoughts into those little boxes so I could understand them.
Heller: How much do you spare your own family in this? Obviously, they are characters in the early segments of the strip.
Spiegelman: They are. But, on the other hand, except for the time when I drew [my wife] Francoise as Osama Bin Laden, it was to recount events rather than dig into the heart of their psychologies, and, in a way, it reflects some of the a priori notions of what I set out to do. In other words, what was this turmoil that was going on inside of me, as a result of what felt like a near death experience? And that was what make up a bunch of the fragments and certainly includes the family members and even the importance of family.
Heller: There is one small but significant fragment that for me captured the emotional resonance of the family, and that’s where you have your daughter Nadja turning around surprised to see you in her high school, which was literally in the shadow of the towers.
Spiegelman: While most people were watching what unfolded on TV, the images that burned their way into my brain were the images of being in the bowels of Stuyvesant High School while the shit was hitting the fan.
Heller: Having done this, what do you do next?
Spiegelman: This feels holistic to me. It’s like being able to return to some of the concerns I was forced to sublimate in Maus and to reclaim more visibly the language that I’m trying to think in. It was very hard when making Maus; I had to forge a style to make Maus in because it happened over such a long period of time. By the end, I was forging my earlier pages to be consistent. Here I found a means of accommodating my own more mercurial abilities. Like one day I can draw this way, another this way, and one day I can barely draw at all. And being able to accommodate those different visual approaches and make them into some kind of visual whole feels very right to me in terms of the voices inside my head.
Heller: Does this mean that this is a pathway to your next project?
Spiegelman: The content is still working itself out in my notebook but the form becomes clearer and clearer.
Heller: So dealing as you have with this terrible event was paradoxically a blessing?
Spiegelman: Well, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and, for the moment, I’m making plans for a future as if there was one.
About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com